The X-Files goes big and deep with its second season premiere, “Little Green Men,” which aired on Fox television September 16, 1994.
The story, by James Wong and Glen Morgan, concerns an existential crisis for Mulder. Without the X-Files as an overriding purpose, he has difficulty holding on to and maintaining his belief system.
Mulder’s crisis of faith is played out in “Little Green Men” on a much bigger scale than many season one episodes of The X-Files, suggesting a budgetary boost, perhaps.
Whereas many X-Files episodes of the first season were contained in terms of setting and action (“Ice,” “Beyond the Sea,”) “Little Green Men” opens with a trip through the universe itself, proceeds to a foreign location (to Arecibo) and culminates with a dangerous car chase in the jungle.
The story also fills in the blanks regarding Mulder’s sister, Samantha. To wit, “Little Green Men” features a flashback of her abduction, which happens to occur right in the middle of news coverage regarding the Watergate Scandal, a formative event in creator Chris Carter’s youth.
Although aliens appear briefly -- and opaquely -- in “Little Green Men,” the episode nonetheless impresses because it involves the particularities of Mulder’s heroic quest, and a very low-point on that journey.
Also, as one might expect, the episode’s opening montage -- a kind of “cosmic trip” through the stars -- features a healthy dose of social commentary regarding an America in the 1990s that has lost the will, the faith, and the “tools” to achieve the big things of the decades previous.
The X-Files have been shut down by the F.B.I., and Agents Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny) are reassigned to teaching duties at Quantico and wiretap surveillance, respectively.
Mulder experiences a crisis of faith regarding his lack of evidence concerning alien life, even as he recalls the fateful night in 1973 when his sister, Samantha (Vanessa Morley) was apparently abducted by extra-terrestrial visitors.
Mulder’s enthusiasm for the cause is rekindled, however, when Senator Richard Matheson (Raymond J. Barry) reports that there may be an opportunity to make contact with aliens at the satellite installation in Arecibo, in Puerto Rico. That automated installation has apparently received a transmission from an extra-planetary source.
Meanwhile, Scully tracks Mulder down to that location…but she is not alone. Agents of the conspiracy are concerned over her whereabouts, and a heavily-armed UFO retrieval team is en route to Arecibo to intercept Mulder before he determines the truth.
“Little Green Men” opens with a spectacular and emotionally moving montage regarding man’s first attempts to visit other worlds, and contact other life forms. A Voyager spacecraft moves through the loneliness of our solar system, and Mulder’s sad-sack voice recounts the program’s hopeful expeditions to the final frontier.
This extended montage reveals the human achievements (mathematics, music, art…) recorded for posterity on a golden record aboard Voyager, and remembers the human drive and ambition to always seek the next horizon.
But then, the optimism stops, even as Voyager leaves our solar system for the Great Unknown.
“We wanted to believe,” Mulder notes, but “the tools were taken away.”
It isn’t difficult to discern the critique here, one concerning the smallness of modern politics. Why was America able to put aside partisanship and do big things in the 1960s and 1970s, big things like the Apollo program? Why, in the 1990s, did we stop looking outward? Why did we stop seeking answers?
One answer, of course, rests with another image of modern technology featured in “Little Green Men”: the Watergate tapes as seen on television in the 1970s flashback with young Mulder and Samantha. Watergate is thus -- at least implicitly – positioned by The X-Files as the event that poisoned American politics, and made a generation see government not as a vehicle for going where none have gone before or other great achievements, but as a secretive impediment to freedom and liberty.
Mulder feels frustration and anger in “Little Green Men” because he understands that “the tools” to prove the existence of alien life have been taken away by bean counters. One such tool, of course, is The X-Files.
But the other and perhaps more important one is trust and faith in government, the trust and faith that would give rise to increased NASA budgets, and a new focus on the stars instead of more earthbound concerns.
Somewhere along the lines, a lot Americans stopped believing…
Like many episodes of The X-FilesI have written about here lately (particularly “Darkness Falls” and “The Erlenmeyer Flask”), there is a strong basis in fact for the plot point that powers much of “Little Green Men, particularly an alien signal emanating from space.
Specifically, a scientist featured in the episode name-checks with Scully the famous “Wow Signal” of August 15, 1977.
That signal was so named by Jerry Ehman who, while working on a SETI project at Ohio State University, wrote “Wow!” in the margins of a report that described a 72-second narrowband radio signal of non-terrestrial origin. The signal was believed to originate somewhere in the constellation Sagittarius. It was not the end-all, be-all of evidence regarding alien life in the universe. But it was the beginning of evidence about it.
Notation of this 1977 signal is sort of the “other shoe dropping” in terms of “Little Green Men’s” overall social critique. Right here -- in the Wow Signal -- is real-life evidence that the search for extraterrestrial life is not a hopeless endeavor or a waste of time and resources. And yet, the U.S. Government withdrew funding for SETI in the mid-1990s choosing once more to focus on earthbound matters rather than to keep watching the skies.
In other words, the tool that gave us the “Wow Signal” has been taken away.
In terms of the series’ story arc, almost nothing significant happens in “Little Green Men.” The X-Files remains closed, and Mulder finds no hard evidence of alien life.
Yet the story is absolutely vital in terms of character growth because it depicts Mulder at his weakest ebb, and reveals the character -- even without the tools he needs -- picking himself up, dusting himself off, and renewing the well of faith within.
Mulder’s example may very well be a message to audiences in the 1990s, and beyond as well.
If we want a U.S. that can go to Mars, build a moon-base, mine the asteroid belt, or achieve other big things, we’re the ones who must renew our faith, and renew the call to such action.
We can either be the cowering nation of terrified people who believe that we need our automatic weapons for the day the government descends on us with drones and black helicopters, or the nation that casts its eyes firmly, hopefully, and irrevocably on the stars…and prepares for the hard work of building a better future and a better planet.
In comparison with many first season X-Files entries, which often play like brilliant one-location, low-budget horror movies, “Little Green Men” looks, feels, and plays more like an epic, big-budget motion picture. The season premiere plays on a larger scale, features intense action, and increases the playing field for our favorite agents. “Little Green Men” is basically a test run of The X-Files format on a bigger canvas, and the experiment is a pretty resounding success.
Next week, one of the best episodes of the series: Chris Carter’s “The Host.”